Dear Filmmakers Who Did Not Get Into Sundance

sundance film festivalThis week the Sundance Film Festival announced the 118 features that will play this year's festival, selected from 4,057 submissions. Here at No Film School we are not good at math, but we are pretty sure this means 3,939 filmmakers were rejected from the festival. This short letter is for you guys.

This is a guest post by filmmaker Mitch McCabe.

For those of you who DID get into Sundance you are likely filled head-to-toe with thrilled adrenaline (and now, REALLY finishing the barely-locked film), and to you, many congrats! To the rest who have heard the news they did not want, let me virtually hug you.

While I have had the fortune of having 2 films at Sundance, I’ve also experienced the great normalcy of many more films rejected by Sundance. And frankly, when I got “the good call” it has never made sense to me. It was never the one everyone told me was “a shoe in”, never the one with the most years of work or biggest budget. Of the many staff members at Sundance I know, I can honestly say they are truly great individuals who care deeply about filmmakers -- who dread having to make cuts, who are not looking forward to breaking the news to the talented MANY.

So, I say to my fellow filmmakers, even more important than saying that your FILM is awesome regardless of where it plays, YOU are awesome no matter who rejects your work. Do not read into it as a declaration of your own failure. Your investors, your producers, may suddenly turn on you by the sheer news of your film’s Sundance rejection. Maybe it seems you have less friends. Yesterday you were a brilliant auteur, but now you messed up.

Do not let it ruin your spirit. Do not let one festival -- or the whole world of them -- define you and what you have made your life about. Yes, there are wars and disasters and more important things in the world than your independent film (which may be aimed at stopping natural disasters), but that does not help you this week. You sacrificed any number of things, maybe people have invested in you their talent, money, faith. Just know:

You have done something most people only talk about drunkenly. You put words into action.

As our field becomes saturated with Sundance talk, the next 10 weeks might become unbearable at times. But just know you are not alone. Lick your wounds and carry on. And try not to drink too much!

This post has been adapted from a Facebook post by Mitch. Thanks Mitch!

mitch mccabeMitch McCabe's films have received several awards and screened at hundreds of festivals, venues, and have been broadcast by HBO, PBS and Showtime. Her recently completed documentary YOUTH KNOWS NO PAIN premiered at Lincoln Center in 2009 and began airing on HBO after touring the festival circuit. Her first film, PLAYING THE PART screened at Sundance Film Festival, New Directors/ New Films, and won an Academy Award in the Student category. Her short films SEPTEMBER 5:10PM (1999) and HIGHWAY 403, MILE 39 (2004) were both nominated for Student Academy Awards and premiered at the New York Film Festival. In 2007 her short film TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. McCabe lives and works in Los Angeles and New York.

You Might Also Like

Your Comment


I hung out with Mitch at the Norwegian International Film Festival many moons ago. She's a good egg. Nice to see her pop up here. Well-written and thoughtful words of reassurance - and I didn't even submit my film to Sundance.

December 7, 2013 at 4:12PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


My recent short didn't get into Sundance, but they did say that 12000 got submitted and 187 got chosen so ho hum.. but we DID get into London Short Film Festival so very happy with that !!

December 7, 2013 at 4:33PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Never submit to Sundance with the intent of being accepted. The numbers are just against you. Treat it as a lottery, if you win - great!

December 7, 2013 at 5:22PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Pretty much. Not getting in doesn't mean your short sucks (well it could be because of that) but there are just too many films getting submitted.

December 7, 2013 at 10:55PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Lol. True. My film got rejected as well.

December 9, 2013 at 6:31PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


yep, got my film rejected this year (and all the others!), and they did say there had been 12,000 submissions...
That's just one in every 100 films submitted!
Even if only 1/3 of the films are any good, I'd still not like to be a programmer: it doesn't really make much sense to have to choose just one film every 100 one watches.
That is to say: we understand.

The sad part of course is that half of the films shown will be shown just because of names, and no other reason at all...

December 7, 2013 at 6:54PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Not being selected into festivals is part of the process. Randomness is part of the entire adventure of making a film, that you never really know what's going to happen. Sometimes I wondered to myself how a certain film gets so much praise, where others stay hidden in the dark. It is what it is.

From everything written here, this one resonates with me the most:
"Your investors, your producers, may suddenly turn on you by the sheer news of your film’s Sundance rejection. Maybe it seems you have less friends. Yesterday you were a brilliant auteur, but now you messed up."

Not only because I have been there (Not specifically by Sundance rejection), but because "having less friends" means these weren't friends to begin with. The problem is the opposite of this though; it's when you seem to be climbing, not falling, that people begin to stick to you like flies do to fecal-matter. So finding those that truly want to be part of what you're doing, through the crowed of leeches, is important. Because it is those leeches that will be the first to disappear if they don't find personal gain through success, instead of understanding that you gain a lot just by doing. Having people stick with you no matter what, is the most valuable asset I can have as a filmmaker.

December 8, 2013 at 1:44AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


There's some great festivals that cater to actual "indie" productions. I hope people that submit to the Sundance US dramatic competition don't actually think that it's possible to be accepted without some sort of industry name attached.

Think of Sundance as a pre-screener for films that will make it to the theater regardless in a few months time. It's not there to expose new talent or bring in actual independent projects. It did at one time, but those days are long gone.

That said, Sundance is very much worth going to... quite a bit of fun. Great films, lots to see and do, it's a good experience. As a filmmaker though, it has very little to do with the worthiness of your film. Don't feel bad or even disappointed if you don't get in. It's honestly like feeling bad you didn't happen to win the powerball jackpot. It's silly.

December 8, 2013 at 12:02PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Agreed re: the odds of getting in, and preparing yourself to NOT get in and being surprised if you do... that's a healthy attitude.

But I do think there are plenty of "actual" indies in the festival, especially the NEXT, New Frontier, and Park City at Midnight sections. I know plenty of folks who have gotten their big break because of Sundance, so I'll disagree with "it’s not there to expose new talent or bring in actual independent projects."

For many projects, just because you manage to attach a name to your project doesn't mean you're suddenly not an "indie." You could be a nobody with a great script and as a result you get an experienced producer and name actor attached. Then when you get into Sundance you're not an indie anymore? There are a lot of projects that started from nothing, and by the time they're at Sundance maybe they have a profile and some buzz... but by no means does it mean they started that way.

I suppose this is all part of a larger discussion about how you define "indie"... But of those 118 features, 54 of them are from first-time filmmakers. I'm not sure how much more indie you can get than "first-time filmmaker!"

December 9, 2013 at 9:30AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Ryan Koo

To expound on my comment, I suppose I was referring mostly to feature films.

As to shorts, documentaries etc, I agree 100%. There are definitely a healthy amount of first time filmmakers among those categories this year.

The general feeling I get is: Leave the features to those already hollywood affiliated, but feel free guys to bring on your shorts and documentaries.

December 9, 2013 at 10:17AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


First feature films = indie? Then Citizen Kane is the most indie film of them all. lulz.

47 Ronin, total indie. Tron: Legacy, classic indie. Snow White and the Huntsman, Chronicle, Evil Dead (remake), etc... I can't agree with that rationale, but I see your point -- many 'first films' are indeed of the independent ilk.

I believe the 'old school' way of defining an indie film is any film that acquires funding from outside the studio system and has no distribution deal in place upon shooting.

December 3, 2015 at 2:58PM


I agree with John. Walk across the street to Slamdance if you want to see indie film with indie budgets. What's going on is a large portion of all us major festivals are coming from their own lab programs. Ifp projects, Sundance screenwriting/director labs as well as Tribeca. They are funneling the chosen few from those labs into their actual fests mixed with smaller commercial Hollywood films. Lynn Shelton is a great example of the inner circle, Humpday was not special, but joining mark duplass and the sxsw mumblecore gang turned out well for her. She is back for the 3rd year in a row? Which is not fair considering her work and the amount of content around. Don't just take anyone's word for it, find out where their budgets and productions cam from, you will find most if not all come from a connected production, person, development lab etc. I will go as bold to say "upstream color" goes a much shorter distance without his first film success at Sundance when Sundance was more apt to bring in an ambitious low budget film shot for nothing with local actors and no connections. Chris Nolan's "following" was at Slamdance for a reason. I think all the films should be of this quality, discovering projects not pushed on indiewire or anywhere should be a huge part of the mission statement. I mean you know how many times the Zellner Bothers have been at Sundance. I am glad Kat Kandler is there, she deserves a chance for her work to be seen more after making no budget work on film for years. So they do get it right here and there but far between mostly IMO.

December 9, 2013 at 8:42PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Also, they could expand the "Next" section to at least ten films or more easy. And Next is only a few years old so it's hard to scope what's going on there. A really cool thing to know would be how many films do well at all the other major festivals, but don't Sundance. Goes along with my theory that there are not unwanted masterpieces Laying around on shelves. Maybe the 100-something films are the most diverse and well produced content that was judged. If I had to guess, I would say for everyone that got in there might be another 50 - 100 films that were on the fence, and those show up at sxsw etc.

December 10, 2013 at 1:13AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Fine article but ,did you really say this " let me virtually hug you." ? You are kidding -right ?

December 12, 2013 at 3:20PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Yup, agreed. Actually surprised at the wide-eyedness of some who think Sundance infallibly and indiscriminately curates its film slate. It's a self-enclosed farm system like any other exclusive, legacy club. Sure, there might be an "out of nowhere" work once in a blue moon (although, that's elevated like underdog mythology and makes for great press). But for the most part, it's scouted already -- from film schools, Sundance alum faculty from those film schools, labs, film fests, foundations, etc., crew from other Sundance alum. In turn, those institutions on the ground are reverse-funneling their candidates. Ironically, it makes for a certain kind of homogeneity, one that conforms to not only a Sundance brand of filmmaking, but a Sundance brand.

December 13, 2013 at 12:59PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Couldn't agree more. Sundance ain't what it used to be. Sometimes my eyes hurt from all the rolling when I read the synopses.

A one legged, transgender immigrant with cancerous aids battles against expectations. New york. Trumpet music.

December 4, 2015 at 12:31PM, Edited December 4, 12:31PM


12,000 short films X 5 minute average length = 60,000 minutes

That equals 1000 HOURS of continuous film submitted.

It would take 41 DAYS, non-stop, to watch each individual film.

So to think that this type of contest is at all objective is laughably naive.

The good news, however, is that we're in the age of the internet, and I bet most of you here will find success by publishing your film online, rather than trying to get "discovered" at a contest.

I used to submit to photography contests until I realized it was a waste of emotional energy, and that a majority of the photographers I looked up to and considered masters had never won a contest of any sort.

In short: winning can be great for your career, but it's hardly the only way to find success.

December 3, 2015 at 2:46PM


yah.. the kicker about sundance is.. its an INDY film festival thats submission deadline is in september.. MOST indies get shot between may-aug, doesnt give the proper amount of time to get the films ready.. makes people rush, cut corners, and only to get dismissed.. if you shoot in summer and plan to make a real push for sundance that means you need to weait till like the next year, and not show your film anywhere else or sundance won't even look at it.. so yah... better way to go is finish your film, push for SXSW or the Christmas deadline for Tribeca, and then move from there.. sundance is bleh..

December 3, 2015 at 6:29PM